A Really Late Spring, White Rose, and Canada Blooms--Will it Ever be World Class?

When Easter is early (read, in March) one year, and in the previous year it was later (in April), garden centre sales appear to be away ahead of the previous year. If the manager examines the broad picture he or she quickly sees that sales are not really ahead, it was only Easter being in March that made it appear that way.

That’s pretty much the way I’d sum up the early part of this year. However, some garden centre operators were reporting a high degree of pent-up sales, and higher dollars-per-order than last even in mid April.

Out here in British Columbia, the trade was disappointed with the winter (-like) weather experienced as late as ten days before Easter Sunday. Most garden centres and nurseries reported being 30 to 50 percent behind last year, and the disaster actually started in March out here because the increased Easter sales only applied to indoor (pot plant) and cut flower items, because it was too cold and folks weren’t interested in buying outdoor plants. This is actually the third year of slow, cool spring seasons, but by far the worst. I should think it’s doubtful that the lost sales will be picked, up but many in the trade are confident they will catch up.

Back in Ontario, by the time June rolled around, June 20th to be specific, a predictable casualty of the cool spring was the announced bankruptcy of the White Rose Crafts and Nursery Sales Ltd. chain. With assets of just $46,500,000 vs. liabilities of $114,200,000, the chain is apparently to continue operating as the receiver considers closing weaker stores, and endeavours to sell the operation as an on going retailing organization.
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Since this year’s eastern-Canada flower shows--Canada Blooms and Success With Gardening--in mid-March, I’ve talked to hundreds of visitors to them, as well as to many involved either professionally, or as volunteers. I did see both shows, if only ever so briefly, but as for Canada Blooms, I cannot say that I was impressed. Horticulturists who have been around for a few years and seen other world-class shows seemed to have the same comments I had--that the 2002 show was a disappointment at least from the point of view of new and unusual plants. In fact it was a disappointment from the point of view of all the plants that were not there. In this regard, this year’s show was a similar disappointment to that of the one in the year 2000.

It is not that there was nothing to see at the show, it’s just that there could and should have been so much more. Obviously, the show’s organizers are lacking a person or persons with a high degree of expertise in plant forcing. It was obvious to many of us, but I don’t want to quote you names of those who made this comment to me because they likely wouldn’t want me to quote them, preferring instead to remain silent and on good terms with the show management!

Columba Fuller, the show’s designer, and an old acquaintance of mine, is to be complemented for her re-design of the entire show floor. I thought the new overall design was great! However, the enlarging of the commercial areas and reduction of show garden area is not a good trend.

The over-commercialization of the show was noticeable to thousands of visitors. Hideous red and yellow Laguna signs dominated landscape architect Tom Sparling’s lovely entrance garden for the Laguna water gardening people. In addition, Laguna had a small manned commercial booth off to the right of the garden but still a part of the garden. Incredible!

I did like Earth Inc.’s garden, and the judges seemed to agree, awarding it no less than four of the major prizes. Unfortunately, this garden was part of what the show’s management brags as being “gardens that you don’t just stand and admire, but actually walk through” [I paraphrased that from what I remember in a Canada Blooms press release]. The show management also infers their show is unique in this regard, because the other large shows (and I think I saw specific reference to Philadelphia not having this concept and perhaps also a similar reference to Chelsea) don’t offer this “walk thru” feature.

Canada Blooms is correct. But, there is a good reason for the long-standing shows such as Philly and Chelsea not offering any number of walk-thru gardens. The Canada Blooms people can easily check with my old buddy Ed Lindemann who designs the Philly show and has done so for several decades. Or, they can confer with people such English horticulturist Bob Corbin (an old friend of mine who has visited Chelsea shows for 50 years) who will explain the long-standing concern with traffic movement at that show. 

The reason for an obvious lack of walk-thru gardens in these older, larger shows is simply that when the show is busy (which means literally from an hour after opening until about 4 PM daily) only a small percentage of the visitors actually get to go through walk-thru gardens. Many show visitors simply don’t want to get into long, long lines, and/or wait for lengthy periods to see a number (or even one) of the gardens. Personally, I don’t blame them!

That was a major problem at Canada Blooms this year. 

An innovation was the removal of the Garden Club of Toronto’s specimen horticultural and flower arranging classes from a specific designated area to a scheme where they were scattered within a number of display gardens. This idea is certainly different and I’m reluctant to criticize what was obviously a good new concept that I at least hadn’t seen before. However, I do think this concept took away from the excellence of both the flower arrangements, as well as the competitive horticultural classes. The comments I’ve heard on this idea now have all been negative.

I also spent part of Saturday March 16 at the 9th annual Success With Gardening show, which is now combined with the International Home and Garden Show at the International Centre near Lester Pearson Airport. This show was once again highly successful. Those who saw it for the first time may have been disappointed that it was “not like Canada Blooms”. That is certainly true, it is not a flower show and does not try to be--it never has. But it is a large, commercial garden information show, and it performs that role extremely well. In addition, the exhibit of specimen plants and flower arrangements done by local horticultural society members, staged by the Ontario Horticultural Association, was absolutely outstanding. This aspect of the show was most impressive and definitely superior to the aforementioned “scattered about” counterpart at Canada Blooms!

The single most controversial point about this year’s show amongst ‘insiders’ was the judging of the display gardens. Now, judging is always going to be controversial, but Canada Blooms’ problems seem never to end. I well remember being a member of the 12-person Canada Blooms display gardens judging team in 1997 and we spent considerable time trying to assure that the major awards were well distributed among the major gardens. The team this year apparently didn’t do that; all but one of the nine major awards went to just two gardens--those of Earth Inc. (4), and Ronald Holbrook & Associates (4). Congratulations to Oriole Landscaping (the only other major award winner) for their “Nature’s Bounty”--a small cliff garden design, the concept for which I liked even though it required visitors to climb a set of stairs and then go back down the other end. (How else would you expect to look at a cliff garden?)

One final point. Though some thought cooler heads would prevail, and the two shows would be held on different weekends next year, such is not the case. It is interesting that Canada Blooms moved onto Paul Newdick’s (International Home and Garden Show) dates two years ago after the latter had been holding his show(s) on the same dates for a decade! However, for 2004, I understand the two shows will be held on different dates!